Barcelona

The thing with travel writing is that it takes a long time between travel and the actual publication of the article. Depending on the publication.

Barcelona for Eat Stay Love

STAY – 80-82 Barcelona 2

We picked Barcelona as a vacation destination for the same reason that many families do: great weather, design, architecture, the hub of the global food scene and a non-stop flight from India. Choosing the hotels was trickier. As a travel writer, I wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in the city. Being a vegetarian family, we needed to spend at least part of our stay in an apartment hotel with its own kitchen. And we wanted to be by the ocean for at least part of the time.

Hotel Arts, managed by the Ritz Carlton, fit the bill on all counts. We decided to stay in the apartments on the top floor because they came with a kitchen. We didn’t realize that the architecture and location would make for stunning rooms, or in our case apartment. Designed by the late great architect, David Graham for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in the shadow of the famous “peix” or fish sculpture that Frank Gehry built for the same occasion, the Hotel Arts had aged well and was full of architectural surprises. We got to know the staff even before we got there. My husband wanted tickets to the Copa Del Ray or King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. We peppered the staff with questions about where to buy tickets and would they hold our tickets if it were couriered to them. They did.

What makes a great hotel? Sure, a lot of it is hardware. Nobody wants to come into a lobby with drooping flower arrangements or dodgy showers. Even though luxury hotels don’t like to admit it, small mistakes happen even in the best hotels. What redeems every hotel’s flaws is the way the staff treat the guest. The woman who responded to our emails, Melanie Dorange, was one such. She researched Valencia; held our football tickets; arranged for a rental car; and answered all our insistent, sometimes inconsequential questions. When she learned that my daughter wanted to be a chef, she took us on a guided tour through the kitchens and introduced her to the pastry chef. It is these gestures that make for memory.

Our apartment was fantastic. Spread over two floors, and overlooking the blue sea, it included a spacious living room, study, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Light filled the space and created angles and lines in the shadows. We had access to the club floor for sparkling cava or champagne along with snacks and sandwiches throughout the day. Breakfast was in the lawns under Gehry’s fish, with European children doing cartwheels or jumping into the pool.

We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Arts but we wanted to try out a real Barcelona apartment, to see how the locals lived. The Urban Suites came highly recommended on Tripadvisor: two bedrooms, bathrooms, living, kitchen, dining, and best of all, a spacious balcony. We had dinner there surrounded by flickering candles and read books on the lounger under the Catalan sun. The Urban Suites was located near Montjuic hill, where the Olympics were held. It was a great location for shopping, hiking and taking in museums such as the Joan Miro Fondacion. We walked to the local grocery store, manned by Indians (surprise or no surprise); bought manchego cheese, crusty bread, tomatoes, olives, onions and herbs for a great sandwich lunch. We sat in the sun and drank the famed rioja wine and sparkling cava. Round the corner was Barcelona’s most happening nightclub and one night, we joined a long line of teenagers to watch local bands perform. For a family that wants independence without the fuss of staff; that wants to live like the locals at stylish digs; that wants to live in a vibrant neighborhood with great access to public transport, malls, museums and restaurants, The Urban Suites is a good choice.

The Mercer Barcelona is rated amongst the best in the world. The hotel is a revived and refurbished Roman fort in the old Gothic quarter. The red brick fort walls are still visible in the back of the hotel. Our room, a junior suite on the top floor overlooked a beautiful courtyard with orange trees. The scent of orange blossoms delighted our night. At the rooftop terrace, we could sip Bellinis and look over the turrets and cathedrals that dotted this beautiful city. Best of all, we could walk out of the grand swinging door of The Mercer and merge into the narrow lanes and cobblestone streets of the ancient Roman city that has recently spawned the likes of uberchef Ferran Adria and his cohorts who are still cooking up a Catalan storm in the city they cherish.

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Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”

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What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.

Pittsburgh

Some American cities are hidden jewels.  Pittsburgh is one.  

Steeling a march in Pittsburgh

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We’re walking through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. My 12-year-old daughter, Malu, has discovered a dinosaur with cancer. It’s a bone, really, in a glass case, with a tumour that’s 150 million years old. “Wow,” I think. It certainly lends perspective to my anaemic arthritic complaints. What’s the cliché? The only certainties are death and ­taxes? And now, it seems, ­tumours.

The museum, named after Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish steel baron whose mark is left all over this city of 446 bridges, is among the reasons why Pittsburgh was recently named America’s most liveable city by a number of publications, including Forbes magazine and The Economist. The Andy Warhol Museum is another crowd-pleaser. To see Warhol’s paintings drenched in celebrities of the time (Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis) is to understand why he said: “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was prescient in an age before Twitter and Facebook. Warhol, like the authors Gertrude Stein and Rachel Carson, was born here.

My favourite visit is to the Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art with room-sized installations (or “environments”) created by artists in residence: Yayoi Kusama’s explosion of polka dots through one room – floor, ceiling and walls – is eye-popping. When we come out, the world seems tame by comparison.

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Autumn is a good time to visit Pittsburgh. The humid summer gives way to brisk, cool air that snowballs, quite literally, into winter. Banners welcome incoming students who populate its concentration of universities and teaching hospitals: Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the country’s finest engineering schools; University of Pittsburgh, with its large research programme; Duquesne, with its famous Tamburitzans, the country’s longest-running multicultural folk dance company; women’s colleges Chatham and Carlow; and, unusually, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Pittsburgh is a college town, but one that’s not overwhelmed by them. Its roots go back to working-class America and manufacturing. For a long time, it was called Steel City. Indeed, when Carnegie decided to build a university, he designed long corridors that sloped downwards, to hedge his bets. If the university didn’t take off, he figured, he would convert the building into manufacturing plants with assembly lines. Today, CMU’s orientation includes a walk down long corridors reminiscent of the steel plants that once populated Pittsburgh.

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As an admirer of Carnegie, I’m ­eager to walk in his footsteps. ­Beginning as a telegrapher, he sold his Carnegie Steel company for US$480 million, the equivalent of about $14 billion (Dh51.42bn) in today’s dollars. He spent the last half of his life in philanthropy, ­endowing a slew of museums and institutions in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the most famous of which is Carnegie Hall, New York. In Pittsburgh, his name adorns the museums of art, natural history and science. “Man does not live by bread alone,” said Carnegie famously. “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.” With these sentiments, Carnegie changed the course of his adopted city from one that was beholden to steel for its economy into one that has risen above it.

Geographically, Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which meet to form the Ohio River. The tri-river convergence happens at Point State Park, marked by a fountain. Indians have long believed that the convergence of rivers happens in sacred places called “prayag” in Sanskrit. The Native Americans perhaps believed the same thing, for the Shawnee and other tribes were drawn to the area centuries ago. Today, a 144-year-old cable car takes visitors up the Monongahela Incline for a stunning view atop Mount Washington. The other cable car with a historic flavour is the Duquesne Incline. Most visitors go up one, walk around Mount Washington for the views, grab a bit to eat and come down the other ­incline.

The beauteous hilly landscape attracted immigrants – Polish, Jewish, German, Italian, African-American and Croatian – all of whom occupy distinct neighbourhoods in the city even today, giving Pittsburgh an attractive ethnic flavour. They came to work in the steel factories, manning assembly lines and manufacturing units.

When the steel industry went bust, Pittsburgh was forced to reinvent itself. It turned to technology, robotics, biomedical engineering and software – Google has a growing presence in the city – to grow.

Google’s office is round the corner from SpringHill Suites, a Marriott hotel where we’re staying. Guests have access to the fitness centre next door. Panera Bread, at the base of the building, provides quick sandwich lunches, and Coffee Tree Roasters, across the street, gives us a morning shot of espresso in an environment that is more distinctive than a Starbucks. Bakery Square, where the hotel is situated, is also where Social, one of Pittsburgh’s popular resto-bars, is located. At 5pm one evening, the place is packed with locals drinking and dining on homestyle chicken and meat dishes.

Pittsburgh has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bars per capita in the United States. Its restaurants aren’t to be sniffed at either. Some are local legends. Primanti Brothers, a chain of sandwich shops, is a favourite among students for its low-key vibe and large portions. Pamela’s Diner, where Barack Obama enjoyed pancakes during a campaign stop, reminds us of an old-fashioned Jewish diner in New York. The recently reopened Fuel & Fuddle is famous for its hanger steaks, Buffalo wings and pizza. One evening, we enjoy ravioli and salads at Legume, a stylish restaurant with local art and friendly waiters in the Oakland neighbourhood. Over the course of four days, we try homemade ice cream at Dave & Andy’s; Sushi Fuku; Everyday Noodles; and the atmospheric Spice Island Tea House. Ethnic grocery stores – Indian, Mexican, Chinese – abound. Restaurants in Pittsburgh aren’t fancy and, indeed, locals use the word almost as an accusation. People value humility and discretion in this Pennsylvanian city on the brink of the Midwest. Molecular gastronomy, sculptural desserts, drinks as chemistry – all the things that can seem normal in a New York restaurant – are viewed as over the top and pretentious here.

Where Pittsburgh goes to de-stress is at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, its National Football League team. The city also has the Pirates for Major League Baseball and the Penguins in the National Hockey League. Locals have fierce loyalties towards these teams and tickets for games have long waiting lists. The golf legend Arnold Palmer learnt his game on Pittsburgh’s courses and the three rivers foster a vibrant water community in clement weather, with rowing, kayaking and the annual Three Rivers Regatta.

Equally vibrant is the artistic community. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is among the best in the country (the actor Gabriel Macht, who plays Harvey Specter in the television series Suits, is an alumnus). During the annual Tony Awards for theatre, CMU ran an advert featuring all the illustrious screenwriters, actors and directors who walked the portals of its school. Perhaps because of this connection, hundreds of films, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Fault in Our Stars, Jack Reacher and the upcoming American Pastoral were fully or partially filmed in the city. On tour buses, it’s fun to spot the movie locations, all of which are enthusiastically pointed out by locals.

We assumed that the Phipps Conservatory would be just another botanical garden. What makes it exciting is the toy trains, which children are allowed to touch. Narrow aisles take us through a stunning array of plants, orchids and flowers. The cafe inside has a number of vegetarian options, while we spot academics talking to each other about esoteric subjects as they walk through the conservatory.

For those inclined, Pittsburgh has a number of cultural offerings, including a symphony, dozens of theatres and a thriving jazz and bluegrass music scene. The National Negro Opera Company, the country’s first, was founded in the city. The Benedum theatre, built in 1928, seats about 3,000 people and hosts movies, Broadway shows and music. Across the street is the Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, serving amazing pizza and locally brewed drinks on tap.

Fancier still is the art deco Heinz Hall, dripping with chandeliers and red carpets. Here too, however, Pittsburgh doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the city’s symphony orchestra and George Gershwin’s music, Heinz Hall has hosted Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. Think animated Bugs Bunny goofiness with a live orchestra playing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

On our last day in Pittsburgh, we do something that only a Hindu Indian family would do: we go to the Hindu temple to see Lord Balaji, who occupies India’s richest temple atop a hill in Tirupati. After eating tamarind rice at the Balaji temple, we board our flight for the long journey home.

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Aikido

Digital magazines are getting better and better.
Silverkris has a nice section called “Been There,” which talks about activities and locations. I am working on two pieces for this section. Here is the first one on a martial art that is close to my heart: Aikido.

You can read it in the gorgeous magazine here. Or clicking the link below.
They have me on the Contributors page here.

Been There Aikido

Frankincense

Oudh and frankincense are scents of the day.

Here is a story that appeared in Qantas magazine, Australia.

Thank you, Stanley Pinto for organizing a superb trip to Muscat. And hustling all of us energetic tourists and members of the Bangalore Black Tie into some semblance of organization.
And thank you, Shawqi Sultan and Saleh Talib for showing us an insider’s view of your lovely city, has only Epicureans can.
Here are some favorite photos of that memorable trip.

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And thank you, Elisabeth, for being my fragrance friend. I miss you!

Perfume Oman

Tea

Thank you Viveck Crishna for the help and info. Here is the piece that appeared in Silkroad. Met a tea taster, Shivram Warrior, who was saying that once you drink enough cups, you can identify tea like I identify pizza– its provenance, grease-level, which Ray’s New York pizza outlet, and time of takeout. At least I used to.

Tea for Silkroad/Dragonair

British Airways Hyderabad

They called to assign Hyderabad. The layout in digital magazines is so beautiful now. Check out my story here.

I have pasted content below but not the photos

WORK TODAY, FLY TOMORROW • JULY 2014

HYDERABAD: EIGHT REASONS TO STAY
This city has been a centre of prosperity and innovation for centuries, but nowadays is better known for being one of India’s key IT and software hubs, earning it the nickname ‘Cyberabad’. But there’s more to Hyderabad than just business, says Shoba Narayan. Stay on and discover its fiery cuisine, intricate artwork and pearls

Get crafty

The city is home to intricate weaving styles popularised by the Mughals. Visit the homes of artisans who still use traditional Himroo and Mashroo techniques to spin soft muslin weaves, on a tour with Detours India. You can also pick up beautiful kalamkari paintings, popular with hip Indians.

A history lesson

Stroll around the manicured grounds of the University College of Women in Koti. It was once the mansion of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident whose relationship with Khair-un-Nissa (teenage granddaughter of the then prime minister) was portrayed in William Dalrymple’s book, White Mughals – worth a read before visiting.

Time for tea

Sip Irani chai (a blend of brewed tea leaves, boiled milk and sweetened condensed milk) with Osmania tea biscuits at Farasha Café and Bakery, which sits in the shadow of the Charminar monument in the Old City. You can hear the call of the muezzin from the mosque nearby.

Get out of town

Take a trip to the historical forts in Bidar, a three-hour drive from the city. Tucked away in neighbouring Karnataka state’s northeastern corner and far off the tourist track, it’s home to the exquisite black Bidri metalware. There are also impressive ruins and monuments from the Bahmani era and the colossal Bidar Fort – the largest in South India.

Spice world

Try a spicy Andhra thali (a plate of local vegetarian dishes, such as daal, vegetable curries, mango pickle and curd rice) at the original Southern Spice restaurant in the Banjara Hills neighbourhood. Don’t miss trying Hyderabadi haleem – an Arabic-influenced stew of meat, lentils and pounded wheat – at cafés such as Niagara.

Pearl jam

Hyderabad processes many of the world’s pearls, so you get them at wallet-friendly prices. Mangatrai Jewellers is known for its high-quality pearls, and the best outlet is the flagship store opposite the Liberty Bus Stand.

Up on the roof

The Park Hyderabad, which overlooks Hussain Sagar Lake, is the place to enjoy a sundowner with a view. Make a night of it by heading down to its Kismet nightclub to rub shoulders with Telugu movie stars, socialites and the city’s glitterati.

Museum time

Summer can be humid, so take a break from the heat at the Salar Jung Museum, which houses a jumbled collection of global artefacts from Italian sculptures to Arabian books. For something quirkier, try the museum of local ‘crazy car designer’ Sudhakar Yadav, where you’ll find wacky automobiles in various shapes.

British Airways flies to Hyderabad six times a week, including a service on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Use the Avios calculator to see how many Avios you need to get there

Bangkok Tuk-tuks

My Dad talks about this incident to this day.

Tuk-tuk tricks and Bangkok bartering
Shoba Narayan

May 29, 2014 Updated: May 29, 2014 11:47:00

It begins innocently enough. We’re in Bangkok and my 12-year-old wants to ride on a tuk-tuk. After days of visiting Buddhist temples, she wants something more adventurous. My 80-year-old father, who’s travelling with us, is having none of it.

“Tuk-tuks are dangerous,” he says. “Why take chances in a new country? And that too, on the day of our flight?”

I’m caught between two generations. My instinct is to dismiss my father’s warnings, as I usually do. He’s the worrying kind and goes into overdrive in a new country. What could go wrong with a simple ride in a tuk-tuk?

We hire one right outside our hotel and tell the tuk-tuk driver to show us the sights. The hotel concierge asks the driver to drop us back at the hotel in half an hour. We all get in: my parents, my two daughters and I.

The tuk-tuk takes us deeper and deeper into the narrow by-lanes that surround the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, where we’re staying. Soon, we’re in a neighbourhood with a dirty canal on one side and automobile-spare-part shops on the other. Touristy, it’s not.

I ask, then order and, finally, entreat our driver to turn back. He acts as if he can’t hear. As we bounce along into the impending darkness, I glance at my father, who has an “I told you so” expression on his worried face.

Finally, the driver pulls into what is obviously a tourist trap. A seedy shop sells Buddha statues, Thai silk jackets, imitation pearls and knick-knacks. The owner stands outside, ostensibly welcoming us. “Please tell your friend to take us back to your hotel?” I say, without preamble.

“Only if you buy something from us, madam,” says the owner. “Otherwise, he no take you back.”

The shop sells poor-quality, overpriced souvenirs. I have exactly four Thai bahts in my purse; and I don’t want to use my credit card at such an obviously seedy place.

My father tries to explain to the owner that we have a plane to catch in a few hours. The tuk-tuk driver pulls into a narrow lane about 100 yards away and parks there, puffing a cigarette. I stand outside the shop, and try to find another taxi or tuk-tuk to take us back, but nothing is in sight.

It was my teenage daughter, Ranju, who comes up with the solution – which had been staring at us in the face. She takes the pink Disney pouch that my 12-year-old, Malu, is wearing around her neck and offers it to the shopkeeper. “For your daughter,” she says with a winsome smile.

The shopkeeper examines the pouch and nods. “What you want in exchange?”

I was just about to say “a ride back to the hotel”, when Ranju interrupts me. She points at an orange scarf in what appears to be Thai silk. The shopkeeper laughs. “Too expensive.” He offers a tiny, embroidered pouch, which my daughter takes with a smile. “Tuk-tuk?” she asks.

The man nods and hails his friend. We ride back to the hotel in fearful silence.

My teenager uses the pouch to carry coins. It’s a testament, she says, to the power of negotiation. I say that it’s a testament to the fact that you should listen to your parents. My father merely says: “I told you so.”

FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid

Copa Del Ray
It’s the eve of the Indian election results and all my friends are doing a variety of things to keep themselves distracted from this nailbiting finish. I decided to sort through my photo library and discovered some photos of a recent trip to Barcelona– that offered a different version of a nail-biting finish.

The highlight of the trip was Copa Del Ray or the King’s Cup finals at Valencia between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. It was the best sporting event that I have ever witnessed. I have watched football and basketball games at Madison Square Garden; watch tennis at the various Opens; cricket in South Africa and India; and the odd Kabaddi match in my neighborhood. Nothing, but nothing compared to this. Nothing came close. The energy in the stadium, the passionate fans, the charismatic players who ran up to the stands and ordered us to clap some more. By the end of the evening, we knew all the chants. In Spanish. Here are the photos of that amazing night.

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